October 31, 2019

Why Caparaó, Brazil Is Winning Specialty Coffee Awards


Caparaó, Brazil has been increasingly present on specialty coffee shop menus. Producers are focusing on quality and, as a result, their coffees are ranking high year-on-year in coffee competitions. But it wasn’t always this way. At one point in time, Caparaó was overlooked as a coffee origin. 

Let’s take a look at how and why this changed. 

Lee este artículo en español Por Qué Caparaó, Brasil Está Ganando Premios de Café Especial

A farm in Caparaó, Brazil. Credit: Mariana Proença, Espresso Magazine

Caparaó, Brazil: What You Need to Know

Caparaó National Park sits on the border between the Brazilian states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo. The mountainous region, with heights up to 2,800 m.a.s.l., is full of dense forests and attracts many nature-loving tourists. In fact, the region was once considered part of the Zona da Mata region, which translated to “Forest Zone.”

Caparaó is not your typical Brazilian coffee region. Mariana Proença is Director of coffee publication Café Editora, which is also one of the main organizers of International Coffee Week in Belo Horizonte, Brazil this November 20–22. She tells me, “It’s a region of small producers. Many of them have two to five hectares, which is very small for Brazil.” 

Nor is it just the farm size that makes it stand out. Ambrose Peter is a coffee buyer and roaster at Alchemy Coffee in Hong Kong, tells me that he has bought coffees from Caparaó many times. “I think there are probably two characteristics of Caparaó coffees that are different from those of other Brazilian regions,” he tells me. 

“The first is a more delicate acidity. You know, it tends to be a little bit more fruity, a little bit more bright, fruity than other regions. [And] I feel a very kind of elegant floral [profile]… You don’t really expect that in Brazilian coffee that much. It’s less nutty, less chocolaty than other regions.”

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Caparaó National Park, which sits on the border of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo. Credit: Villa Januária

When Caparaó Was Known For Bad Coffee

Cecília Nakao is a coffee farmer, roaster, and owner of the hotel Villa Januária. She has lived in the region since 2002, but when she first arrived, it had a poor reputation for low-quality coffee.

“Coffee was already being produced, but it was commodity grade. Nobody was talking about specialty coffees then. Additionally, in the year that I came, there was a worldwide drop in coffee prices and everybody was keen to cut down their coffee trees.”

When you only produce commodity coffee, you are more vulnerable to fluctuations in coffee prices. And Cecília explains that people didn’t think Caparaó was a region suited to specialty.

Due to the wet climate, with frequent and unpredictable bursts of rain, the coffee trees flower multiple times a year. This means that the coffee cherries begin to grow and ripen at different times. In a country known for mechanical harvesting, this could lead to problems: harvesting all the cherries at once would result in a mixture of ripe, over-ripe, and under-ripe coffee. 

Furthermore, wet conditions historically made it even harder for producers to dry their coffees. With natural processing being traditionally the norm in Brazil, along with pulped naturals from the mid-‘90s onwards, consistently dry weather during processing was important for quality. Naturals dry with more fruit attached to the beans, increasing the humidity. Add high moisture levels, and your crops can end up with mold and defects.

Mariana tells me that even ten years ago, most “producers didn’t focus on quality.” But that has since changed dramatically.

Discover more in Why Specialty Naturals Need Strict Quality Control

A group of coffee farmers visiting Caparaó National Park. Credit: André Berlinck

Caparaó’s Producers Turn to Specialty

Cecília says that she began transitioning to specialty in around 2004–5, due to the work of agronomic engineer Agno Silva. He was newly appointed Head of Office at the Espírito Santo Institute for Rural Research and Extension and began working directly with a small group of coffee producers to improve quality.

“He gathered a group and took us to symposiums outside of the city, workshops, courses… Anything related to quality coffees, he took us there. [We went] to Incaper Experimental Farm.” 

She tells me that through this, she learned about ways to improve quality in harvesting, post-harvesting, and storage.

Another key development was the introduction of a community coffee pulper in the micro-region of Muriaé in 2010, paid for through a governmental initiative. This allowed farmers to produce pulped natural coffees for the first time, which tend to dry quicker than naturals (and require less space).

Cecília tells me that besides pulping the cherries, it helps producers sort out the unripe ones. This results in more quality and consistency. 

With a renewed focus on cherry ripeness and specialty processing, Caparaó’s wet weather – once its biggest weakness – soon became a benefit. Mariana explains, “Producers could use this to their advantage… They could do several harvests.”

The producers moved to multiple, selective harvesting of ripe cherries and drying them on raised beds – both steps associated with high-quality lots. Raised beds allow the coffee to dry evenly and cleanly. Air can circulate around the coffee, drying the bottom layer as well as the top one, while the chance of contamination by dirt was reduced.

Mariana tells me that as producers began doing this, their coffees started to grow in quality.

Farm workers inspect flowering coffee trees on Sítio Forquilha do Rio, Caparaó. Credit: André Berlinck

Caparaó Gains International Recognition

In 2013, the second edition of the Coffee Of The Year quality contest was held. The event forms an integral part of Brazil’s International Coffee Week, with lots entered from all over the country. Clayton Barbossa Monteiro and José Alexandre Lacerda, both from Caparaó, placed 6th and 7th respectively in the Arabica category. For the first time, people from outside the region started talking positively about Caparaó’s coffee quality.

The next year, in 2014, Clayton Barbossa Monteiro placed first, proving it wasn’t just a fluke. He repeated his success in 2015. Then in 2016 and 2018, Afonso Lacerda, also from Caparaó, won the Coffee of the Year competition.

The international specialty coffee community started to pay attention. Afonso Lacerta tells me, “It’s much easier to get market attention now. We don’t have to go looking for it; the market comes to the producers.”

He tells me that not only do buyers come to Caparaó, making it easier for producers to sell their coffee, but that these buyers are willing to pay more than before. 

He adds that his farm has won many national contents, “but no contest has brought to the farm the visibility that Coffee of the Year has done.” 

Afonso Lacerda (left) celebrates winning the Arabica category of the 2018 Coffee of the Year. Credit: Ivan Petrich

Caparaó’s Producers Continue to Invest in Quality

Mariana tells me that coffee producers were quick to leverage this increased interest by building infrastructure for visitors. “The producers built coffee shops, and not just the producers, but also investors from the surrounding area. They decided to invest in coffee shops to receive tourists from the park and buyers who were coming to look for more options.”

Yet it wasn’t just about hotels and coffee shops. Afonso says, “Many of those producers who weren’t working toward quality, toward specialty coffee, [but were instead] working with commodity beans, they started to see that those who were working with specialty were making more money. 

Cecília agrees. She tells me that there were many coffee producers who at first didn’t think it would be worth their effort to improve quality. It’s the early adopters who are winning the prizes today. Yet their success has persuaded others that focusing on specialty coffee really is a viable business strategy. 

She says that when producers started winning prizes, “I think that it was at this moment that everything started, that we started to understand that it is possible to have fame.” 

And as a result, she tells me, more producers began investing in new or improved farm infrastructure. Their goal: to improve their cup scores, gain recognition in competitions such as International Coffee Week’s Coffee of the Year, and attract buyers.

Caparaó has changed dramatically since Cecília moved to the region in 2002. The producers feel positive about their futures as specialty farmers. And while not all farms in Caparaó can boast of winning awards, every year the number that can seems to grow.

All quotes except for those by Ambrose Peter were translated from Portuguese by the author. Feature photo: farmers at Sítio Forquilha do Rio.

Please note: This article has been sponsored by International Coffee Week. International Coffee Week is an enterprise of the FAEMG System, Café Editora, Sebrae and the Government of Minas Gerais State, through the efforts of the Secretary of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (Seapa) and Codemge. International Coffee Week 2019 will run from the 20th-22nd November, and you can register here.

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